Monday, August 02, 2004

That Was the Vista

The Bad Plus made a name for itself—or, at least, engaged a broader fan base—by playing covers of pop tunes. Not that jazz musicians haven’t always done this, but, by my reckoning, the results have been less-than-stellar since, say, Coltrane and “My Favorite Things.” Until now. The Bad Plus covers Nirvana, Blondie, the Pixies, Black Sabbath. And so, when I saw them at the River to River Festival 2004, the audience included a drunk frat boy who danced (read: headbanged) the whole time; a young couple with their two-year-old; the bearded jam-band fan; some serious jazz fans; several people who probably couldn’t tell Miles from Dizzy from the lead singer/trumpeter from Cake.

Which made it that much more impressive that The Bad Plus played one lone cover, a Pixies tune I’m not familiar with (probably "Velouria," given that that's the Pixies tune on their newest album). No “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; no “Iron Man.”

The Bad Plus are consummate performers. David King (drums) pulled out a red ball with a bell, drummed on a metal dog bowl, and would hit his splash cymbal and freeze, stick on the cymbal, cymbal standing still. Reid Anderson (bass) danced with his bass the whole time. And Ethan Iverson (piano) . . . . What to say about Mr. Iverson? He was the musical director for the Mark Morris Dance Group for several years. He bounces up and down as he plays, using all 88 keys, and using all 88 keys well.

The stage was on Pier 16 of the South Street Seaport, a gorgeous setting on a beautiful night. A boat bounced behind the music, moored behind the stage. Another two boats were tied up. The audience sat on the pier and listened, and the threatened rain never appeared.

And the music. Mssrs. King, Anderson, and Iverson are virtuosos. In the best tradition of free jazz, they all go separate directions at the same time, then suddenly are all together as the volume drops or the piece hits. The composition isn’t a traditional jazz AABA, no verse, chorus, verse structure. Rather, they seem to be always playing the melody, except that suddenly they aren’t. It’s hard, though, to say what is and is not improvised. There’s no significant swing to their playing, but it is still unmistakably jazz. But with a rock sensibility—the bass is miked as loud as the drums and the piano, meaning, when the bass part is the most relevant, the audience doesn’t have to strain to hear it, but can sit back and enjoy.

The songs themselves run together in my mind. The three by Mr. King were my favorite, better by far than the nearly-recognizable strains of a rock song I'm familiar with. His songs generally starting with a drum solo that resolved itself into a funky beat before the other two came in. Jamie isn’t sure she’d like their music qua music, but she loved their live performance. And I agree: if jazz wants to save itself, it has to leave the reverential museum halls and return to its aggressive, populist, performance roots.